Obituary: Kamal el-Din Hussein

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The Independent Culture
THE STATE funeral on Sunday of Kamal el-Din Hussein, former Vice President of Egypt - attended by President Hosni Mubarak - generated nostalgia and mixed emotion in a nation obsessed with death and with the figures who helped change the course of history.

Egyptians remembered different pictures of Hussein in different decades. Traditionalists and Islamists lamented a true child of the right who opposed Lt-Col Gamal Abdel Nasser's national socialism and a faithful Muslim who "fought against the Jews in Palestine" during the 1948 war with Israel.

Nasserites dusted off pictures of Major Hussein as a faithful member of Lt-Col Nasser's Revolutionary Command Council (RCC), which ruled Egypt after the 1952 coup that toppled King Farouk, thus ending 103 years of civilian monarchy.

Hussein was also recalled as an active artillery commander during the Second World War, at the end of which he became a founder member of Nasser's Free Officers Movement (FOM). He won the praise of democrats and liberals for having had the moral courage to change his ideas and beliefs, opposing Nasser's dictatorship and later challenging President Anwar Sadat to restore pluralist democracy.

Hussein's first public office was as Minister of Social Affairs in 1954, after Nasser ousted Egypt's President, General Mohammed Neguib (Nasser had also been been responsible for his coming to power), who wanted to hand power back to civilian politicians.

Hussein left his controversial mark as Secretary of General Education from 1956. Unfortunately for the 35-year-old major he had to follow the act of Dr Taha Hussein, a legendary French-educated philosopher who not only reshaped the scholarly interpretation of Egyptian and Islamic historic literature, but also left a popular legacy by halving the illiteracy rate when, as a Secre-tary of Education in 1948, he made pre-university education free for all.

Hussein, by contrast, infuriated thousands of nationalists, education specialists and parents by brain-washing schoolchildren to replace their pharaonic African-Nilotic-Mediterranean culture - one peculiar to Egypt for millennia - with a new ideology to erect Nasser as a regional anti- Western populist leader in the Levant and the Middle East.

School curricula were altered to fit the military junta's Orwellian rewriting of Egyptian history. Text books compressed events of six millennia into a few pages; the achievements of the founder of modern Egypt, the Albanian-born Mehemet Ali, who ruled 1805-49, and who built the nation's modern and democratic institutions, were belittled as "exploitation of the people", while the pluralist Westminster-style parliamentarian system of the previous 120 years was tarnished as "a source of corruption and injustice that was only put right by 1952 military take-over".

Under Hussein there was widespread nepotism and political purges in the education system, while schools churned out one generation after another of young people who were ignorant of their rich history, confused about their national identity and lacking the basic skills of independent research and analytical faculties.

In 1958 Hussein threatened to resign when the National Assembly voted to force Egypt's universities to admit all students who passed Al-Tawgihiyeh (the equivalent of GCSEs). He was backed by Nasser who argued that such a move was not economically possible. Two years later, Nasser made Hussein Vice President and head of the Executive Council - the de facto prime minister of Egypt during an ill-advised, short-lived and unpopular three years' confederation with Syria (the United Arab Republic, 1958-61).

Kamal el-Din Hussein was born to a lower-middle-class family in Banha, 29 miles north of Cairo, in 1921. Like Nasser, he was among the first group of non-aristocrats to be admitted to the military college in 1937 on the orders of King Farouk who wanted to popularise the elitist, British- influenced army. During the Second World War he served as an artillery officer in the Western Desert when the Egyptian army was fighting alongside the British against Rommel.

Little was known then of his political sympathies, but many right-wing Egyptian officers like Hussein harboured pro-Nazi and anti-British feelings. He was also close to the Muslim Brothers, an organisation which launched a terror campaign against the British, against King Farouk, against trade unions and the left. He helped to recruit members to FOM as a tutor at the Staff College from 1948 and also during the campaign in Palestine, when the British encouraged Arab armies to prevent the independence of the Jewish State in 1948.

Eight years later in the ever-shifting sands of alliance in Africa and the Middle East, Egypt faced a joint Anglo-French-Israeli attack when the British Prime Minister, Anthony Eden, ordered an invasion of the canal zone after Nasser nationalised the water way in 1956. Major Hussein led the National Guard - which he had helped found in 1953 - in their defence of the Canal city of Ismailia. The FOM-controlled media created a popular myth of his role during this episode.

Hussein remained faithful to Nasser, siding with him against the Muslim Brothers during the bloody purges after the Muslims' unsuccessful attempt on Nasser's life in Alexandria in 1954. He went on to become Secretary General of the National Union of Teachers in 1959 as part of Nasser's drive to control all the organs of a civil society that had flourished for 200 years; Hussein occupied the post until 1963.

He resigned as Vice President and minister of local governments in 1964 because he objected to Nasser's military intervention in Yemen and he then formed a committee that criticised the National Charter published by Nasser in 1960 as a manifesto for National Socialism and a prelude to establishing a one-party (Arab Socialist Union, ASU) dictatorship, which he did the following year, although Hussein had headed the 1958 National Union that was the basis of the ASU. His objection to the nationalisation drive as "furthering anti-Islamic Communist ideals" caused Nasser to criticise him as "reformist but not revolutionary", during the heydays of revolutionary zeal.

He kept a low profile for the rest of the decade, though he occasionally represented Egypt in low-key international conferences and was well received in Islamic countries. Following Nasser's death in September 1970, Hussein publicly criticised his legacy and backed President Anwar Sadat in May 1971 when he purged Nasser's men. He was elected to Parliament with a massive majority in 1972 and encouraged Sadat's reforms to end the one-party monopoly.

Liberals see this period as Hussein's rebirth as a genuine democrat who wanted Sadat to re-establish the political pluralism that existed back in 1954. In 1977, Hussein criticised Sadat's "legalisation of injustice and autocratic rule". Sadat hastily used his National Party's overwhelming majority to issue the "act of political isolation" to dismiss Hussein, who was physically carried out of the chamber by an NP mob.

The act prevented Hussein from contesting the 1978 and subsequent elections. He re-emerged briefly on the pubic stage in 1983 when he made a tour of Arab countries with the PLO leader Yasser Arafat, in order to end a bloody civil war among the different Palestinian factions in various Arab regimes'.

For the last 13 years of his life he was afflicted by liver cancer and made several trips to America in order to be treated. One of his sons is a general in the Egyptian Army.

Kamal el-Din Hussein, army officer and politician: born Banha, Egypt 2 January 1921; Minister of Social Affairs 1954-56; Secretary of General Education 1956-60; Vice President of Egypt 1960-64; Head of Executive Council of the United Arab Republic 1960-61; Head, Olympic Committee 1960-63; married first Soraya Ramadan (deceased; one son), second Fauqia Ali (three sons); died Cairo 19 June 1999.